HILLS HAVE EYES (1977)
Director: Wes Craven
The horror genre has always been about breaking the boundaries of both the imagination and good taste. If a horror movie hasn't frightened you or pushed you out of your "comfort zone," then it hasn't done what it's supposed to. Very few horror filmmakers nowadays are willing to truly horrify audiences, while many are willing to work within the constraints of a PG-13 rating in order to make more money at the box office. With less offensive horror seemingly becoming more and more prevalent, many horror fans are yearning for a full-fledged return to the gritty, rough-around-the-edges horror movies from the '70s that have become today's influential cult classics. One such film was The Hills Have Eyes, the sophomore film of genre legend Wes Craven. His follow-up to Craven's equally abrasive debut movie The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes has amassed a large cult following and has become an influential part of the genre since it was unleashed upon the world three decades ago. Though I do wonder this: has The Hills Have Eyes been deserving of the kindness time has bestowed upon it?
The movie opens in a lonely, rural spot in the mountains of the southwest United States. The area appears to be populated by one standalone gas station, which itself looks mere moments away from crumbling. The station's sole employee, Fred (John Steadman), is ready to remove himself from the barren wasteland and join civilization, but has trouble when a young girl named Ruby (Janus Blythe) shows up at his doorstep, offering to trade stolen whiskey and radios for food. When he mentions he's preparing to leave, she implores him to take her with him. He laughs her off, but before their conversation can continue, they are interrupted by a car pulling up outside.
It is here that we are introduced to the Carters, a family passing through the area on their way to California. Family patriarch and retired police officer Big Bob (Russ Grieve) asks Fred for directions, but he recommends that they stay on the main road and not take any shortcuts. But since nobody ever thinks to listen to the harmless old coot's good advice in movies like this, the Carters immediately take the first "shortcut" they find. They also seem to have paid no mind to Fred mentioning that the Air Force uses a particular stretch of the desert as a testing range, because a number of fighter jets pass over their car as soon as they turn down the narrow road. In all the confusion, the car swerves off the road and ends up breaking an axle, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere.
They need help if they're going to get out of this predicament, so Bob decides to walk back to Fred's gas station while his son-in-law Doug (Martin Speer) goes in the other direction to find someone. This leaves Bob's wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent), their son Bobby (Robert Houston), their daughters Lynne (Dee Wallace-Stone) and Brenda (Susan Lanier), and Lynne and Doug's baby daughter Katherine (Brenda Marinoff) high and dry in the desert as the sun sets. Their only means of protection are their pet German shepherds that they've brought along, but a pair of dogs won't protect them from what the monsters that call the desert mountains home. And once nightfall arrives, the monsters in the mountains strike, as one by one the stranded family is raped, murdered, and mutilated by Ruby's psychotic father Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) and her equally insane brothers Mars (Lance Gordon), Pluto (Michael Berryman), and Mercury (Peter Locke, credited as "Arthur King") until the survivors strike back to exact bloody vengeance.
Loosely inspired by the Scottish folk tales of Alexander "Sawney" Bean and his clan of cave-dwelling cannibals, The Hills Have Eyes is widely considered to be a masterpiece of exploitative '70s horror. There is no arguing its influence regarding the genre, but much of the time, the movie seems cheaply done. The Hills Have Eyes was filmed for 230,000 dollars, and even when adjusted for inflation, the movie's budget would be right at 760,000 bucks today. Although it may prove that you too can make a legendary horror movie for less than a million dollars, The Hills Have Eyes is hindered by its meager budget. While I don't think Wes Craven really hit his groove until he made A Nightmare on Elm Street seven years later, he definitely shows a talent that made him one of the most respected names in horror. Admittedly, some shots look like they would have been better suited for cheap made-for-TV movies, but Craven and cinematographer Eric Saarinen make the most of it and I admire their efforts. I must mention while I'm here that there are some instances where the screen goes almost completely black. I don't know if that was intentional or just a case of poor lighting, but the movie benefits from it. There is a particular scene in which the Doug character charges out into the desert after their first encounter with the cannibals in the middle of the night. The camera slowly tracks out, and all that can be seen is Doug surrounded by pitch black darkness. Regardless of intention, the moment really works as a metaphor for the isolation, loneliness, and confusion that I'm sure the character had to be feeling.
Unfortunately, Craven's script isn't half as good as his direction. Frankly, I thought the script sucked. The Carters are self-centered, annoying, and so downright stupid that if anything bad happens, they had it coming. They split up every time they get the opportunity, and absolutely fail to communicate on any level even when their very survival is on the line. Hell, Bobby doesn't bother to tell anyone that there's some kind of sick killer in the desert until right before the sick killer and all his buddies pounce on them. And even when Bobby does tell someone, he interrupts Doug and Lynne during a rather intimate moment so he can tell them. Did he even think that maybe he should have said something 20 minutes earlier so they could have prepared? However, making the Carters such an awful family may have been Craven's intent from the start. Papa Jupiter's clan may not be the greatest family out there, but at least they're more of a family than the Carters. They're continually in communication with one another, they're far more modest, and they truly do seem like they care about one another. They might be crazy baby-eating psychopaths, but at least they're not egotistical morons like the Carters. As one fellow reviewer put it, The Hills Have Eyes is "like The Grapes of Wrath, but with dog evisceration." And I think he pretty much hit the nail on the head with that.
Perhaps the worst thing about the entire movie is the acting. If the Carters are actually supposed to be likeable, the actors playing them do not help matters at all. With the exception of Dee Wallace-Stone, every member of the Carter family fail to show much acting talent at all. However, with the exception of Janus Blythe, the cannibals are all wonderful. They're equally frightening yet fun, with James Whitworth and Michael Berryman as the standout performers. Also frightening yet fun is the score composed by Don Peake. Reminiscent of the music from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Peake's music is a bizarre, surreal experience that suits the movie well.
While The Hills Have Eyes may be a torchbearer for the ultraviolent grindhouse horror of the '70s, it's just not very good. I didn't feel that it lived up to the reputation it has amassed over the years, and because of that, I was left feeling somewhat disappointed. I went in expecting something, and the movie delivered something else. But to be fair, The Hills Have Eyes does have a message hidden beneath its rough, crude exterior. That message is that even the most civilized or "normal" denizens of society can snap if pushed too far. Perhaps beyond those breaking points, we may be crazier than what has caused that. Unfortunately, I cannot justify giving The Hills Have Eyes anything higher than two and a half stars. The movie is worth watching if you are interested in Craven's work before he was known for A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, or if you're into this style of movie, but I don't know if I'd recommend it to anyone outside of those people. Though as always, your mileage may vary.
Final Rating: **½